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Good 'Company'

Arizona Rep does well with this racy '70s concept musical

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To wed or not to wed?

That is the question for 35-year-old Robert, an inveterate bachelor whose friends are all married couples. He doesn't have a compelling reason for nuptials; his friends aren't the best practitioners of marriage, and he's not fully committed to any of the three women he's dating. But neither does he have a compelling reason to avoid marriage; at the very least, a wife would provide him with company--as if his friends didn't already give him all the company he needed.

Company is the early-'70s stage work with book by George Furth and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim that set the course for a new kind of entertainment: the concept musical. Here, the psychology and situations of the characters were explored in depth, while linear plot fell by the wayside. Company wasn't the first show to do this (Hair, for example, was an important precursor, and you can see that soon at Arizona Theatre Company), but it was the first concept musical to seduce the critics and attract a serious audience. (Serious not being synonymous with large.)

Is Company too dated of a show to be presented, as it is right now, by the UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre? Well, the '70s are still recent enough to be a source of both nostalgia and embarrassment--check out the vintage TV commercials and PSAs screened onstage as the audience settles in, not to mention Nicholas Halder's pitch-perfect, skin-tight costumes. But beneath the surface, and beyond the comedy of manners made possible by the then still-novel sexual revolution, Company explores relationship issues that remain relevant.

The UA has mounted a worthy production, which suffers only because few of the cast members are convincing as people in their 30s and beyond. (As Robert, Travis Brown hardly looks 25, let alone 35.) Let's start with some of the other elements: the fine and flexible modular sets by Sally Day, wonderfully lit by Alexander Nelson so that black monolithic boxes easily transform from New York skyscrapers into something evoking children's building blocks.

Director Samantha K. Wyer loves the music and clothes of the 1970s, the period of her childhood, and she obviously regards Company as a serious meditation on contemporary relationships, not an exercise in kitsch. She instills in her cast a sense of fun, but she doesn't turn this into a dopey, generic musical comedy. Wyer has a good eye for dispersing the full, large cast across the stage in meaningful groupings, but the more intimate scenes do get a bit lost in the Marroney Theater, a slightly overlarge space for this particular show.

The aforementioned Travis Brown may look too young for his part, but he's in fine voice and knows how to create a character that's smooth yet not slick; a bit more bemused world-weariness could be in order, though.

Otherwise, the women in the cast tend to show more polish and depth than the men. Amy Shuttleworth is especially good--both earthy and urban--as Robert's bohemian girlfriend Marta; Shuttleworth assuredly knows how to sell a song. Jocelyn Pickett is especially engaging as another of Robert's paramours, a ditzy but not idiotic stewardess, and Laura Weiner is remarkably vibrant as a straight-laced, attractive woman who has committed herself to motherhood.

All in all, the individual singing tends to be quite good, but, as has been the case in several recent productions, the ensemble singing is outstanding, thanks no doubt to vocal coach Monte Ralstin. The smallish instrumental ensemble also turns in fine work.

A friend of mine who is active in her religious community was turned off by Company, because its adult themes were alien to her own experience (even though in the early 1970s, she was approximately a member of Bobby's generation). Company is not a show for kiddies or sexual conservatives, nor is it going to please patrons who demand a straight storyline and an unambiguous ending. But it is a thought-provoking show for the rest of us, and Arizona Repertory Theatre is good company in contemplation.

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